Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Review | Final Fantasy XIII

There is almost no other similar feeling in the video game world than beginning for the first time, a brand new Final Fantasy adventure. It is almost as epic as beginning Pokemon, almost.

The world of XIII brings together a group of lovable, well designed and emotionally deep characters, and unfortunately, a single frustratingly irritating one; throws them into a world of turmoil, angst and war; pits them against demons, monsters and even gods that tower battlefields; all in the name of love, friendship and devotion. The journey is long, somewhat stretched out, hindered slightly by a few technical details, but is bursting with the most incredible graphics, beautiful story structure, over-the-top, technical, challenging and memorable fighting and so much emotion it will have even the most rugged of first person shooter fans reaching for their handkerchiefs to wipe away a sly tear.

Before writing this review I put myself into a dilemma of whether to write this review pretending that no other Final Fantasy titles existed, or to do what every other critic has done and compare it to the other undeniably great adventures that have preceded this instalment. Instead I thought I would throw in a few comparisons here and there as we go along just so people who have played the previous adventures would have somewhat of an idea of alterations, expansions and at times, steps in the wrong direction with the game.

First of all it is important to mention that XIII is driven by its story. While this may seem an obvious point and most of the other Final Fantasy titles fall in line to this trend, the difference here is XIII does drop customisation and game progression to the back seat and emphasizes the tale being told as the highlight of the journey. This is somewhat disappointing and as a result makes XIII one of the less technically challenging. For example, Final Fantasy X’s customisation offered a beginner’s option and an advanced option for complete control of your character designs. Unfortunately here, the game holds your hand the entire way. Upon playing through however, it is not as bad as it sounds; sure the technical aspects outside of combat have been dumbed down to fit a larger gaming demographic, and game play progression is quite linear also, it avoids aimless wondering and hours spent in menus plotting out lines of customisation. So yes, hardcore gamers might complain, but I consider myself a veteran of the RPG scene and I have no issue with the game prodding me in the right direction so my strongest character doesn’t accidentally become a healing mage or my defensive character is my port of call for offense. Also as more classes become available, which I will discuss shortly, the order in which you unlock different spells and abilities becomes varied so there is some form of variation present.

To summarize a very long and intriguing story, as with all other Final Fantasy titles, a great global war is raging and you become involved in a purge of the population between Cocoon and their enemy world, Pulse. The game somewhat assumes you will piece the storyline together, especially at the beginning as the dialogue throws out specialised lingo that you have to just acknowledge that you do not know yet, and at times this was slightly frustrating, however things become clearer as you progress and the turmoil is explained through each character. XIII’s heroine is Lightning, an ex-Grand Corp military personnel. She is tough, filled with desire, head strong and easy to become attached too. The tradition continues here with a great leading character and it is nice that this time it is a lady. Along the way your squad increases in size and you meet other characters, all with their own struggles and goals in mind, including Snow, a self proclaimed hero (who looks so much like Terry Bogard from King of Fighters), Hope a young boy who has lost something very dear to him (who looks like a young Tidus from X) and unfortunately Vanille. This incredibly annoying girl has to be one of the worst Final Fantasy characters to date. You can understand her optimistic attitude, but her voice actor is dreadful and just plain hurts your ears, I have no idea how they coped in the recording studio listening to that for days on end.

Throughout your adventure you will travel diverse and simply mesmerising locations. XIII is up there with Metal Gear Solid 4 and Heavy Rain as one of the most beautiful games on the Playstation 3 and while textures and colours are somewhat diminished on the Xbox 360 version, it is still a gorgeous experience. Detail, is the key word here; everything has been looked over to ensure even the smallest of backdrops looks perfect, with the more up close and personal stuff like enemies and landscapes looking incredible. Character designs are also phenomenal, the detail is ridiculous, for example Snow’s beard, I don’t think I have ever seen a more realistic looking beard in a video game.

Lets now talk about the most important aspect of XIII and indeed, any role-play game, the combat. Many people who give XIII a quick spin have a negative opinion with regards to the combat and this is because the first couple of hours do absolutely no justice to the game’s system. This does mean it takes a little bit of time to shift up a few gears but once it does, boy is it a ride you will not forget. You will find yourself shifting through a lot of menus through battle, immediately however, you will notice everything is smooth and there are no problems in this area of the game. To fight, XIII offers you an ability button that lets you map your attacks up to the amount of move’s you are allowed to perform through your action gauge, and an auto-ability button, arguably the worst addition to XIII. Auto-ability lets the computer assign an assortment of moves that is best suited to the task at hand, this means the first couple of hours when you have one attack and one special ability, allow you to simply button mash auto-ability and kill absolutely everything, you literally spend the first two hours doing this and occasionally using a potion.

After a few hours, the game progresses and introduces the technical aspect of combat, Paradigm Shift. In the game all of your characters can change classes ranging from Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Saboteur, Medic and Synthetics. These all accomplish different things in combat, from statistical bonuses, to greater attacks, to defensive duties. Each character is able to level up a variety of these classes and you unlock different abilities and spells depending on where you spend your experience points. Of course if this was Final Fantasy X, each character would be allowed to upgrade every class from the beginning of the game, so anybody could be a healer, or a strong mage, like I said before however, XIII holds your hand and prevents this from happening until much later in the game when eventually, all the classes become available. The problem with this is very much two fold. First of all character development is linear and it becomes very obvious which character is going to play what role throughout the game, no prizes for guessing that a small girl with low attack and huge magic is going to end up your Mage and a huge guy with a six pack and a massive health gauge will be your Tank. Second of all, when the other classes are eventually unlocked, it is a huge waste of experience purchasing low level enhancements when those points could be spent on further enhancing your chosen speciality as for the most part each character will be very good at two chosen classes with a third being alright and the rest completely pointless.

You may be wondering what is the actual need for Paradigms; this is because you are actually only in control of one character at a time during combat, with the other two party members being controlled by the computer. Paradigm shifting essentially allows you to tell your team mates whether you want them to take an offensive, defensive, or balanced approach to the combat, in obviously a much more technical manner.

XIII emphasizes that attack and defence in combat are just as important as one another. Enemies have their usual health bars but also more importantly, a stagger bar. When you hit an enemy, their bar goes up, Ravagers as a class actually make the bar go up more and the Commando class makes the stagger bar diminish slower. Once you combo enough attacks together to max the bar, the enemy goes into stagger mode where he takes a load more damage. This is essentially the aim of the game, stagger the bosses as quickly and effectively as possible and smash them while they are susceptible. This of course sounds a lot easier than it is as mid combat you need to change your Paradigm which changes the class of your characters; this could be due to a Medic being needed to heal or a Synthetics character to re-boost attack; while all of this is going on however, your enemies stagger gauge drops, letting it go down to zero without staggering an enemy forces you to start your chain of combos again, wasting precious time. The Sentinel class, especially at the beginning of the game really shows you that defending is incredibly important and using Sentinel players as shields to avoid huge damage is crucial in combat. You will notice that your party heals after every battle, something that is not customary in the Final Fantasy franchise. It works here however, as in combat you take a tonne of damage, way too much to not be forced to heal after almost every battle.

Time is indeed very precious in XIII as at the end of every battle you are given a time you were expected to win the battle in, your actual time of success and a rating out of five stars with spoils being awarded depending on how many stars you achieve. Therefore quick and swift victories are what make a good XIII player and to handle the technical aspects of Paradigm shifting, while keeping an enemies stagger gauge rising, while maintaining party health and boosters, all under the pressure of the clock, makes the game a load more technical and exhilarating than people make it out to be.

XIII throws out more customisation with the ability to use items found in the world to upgrade your weapons and equipment. This is vital for unlocking the most powerful items to make your team strong and able to contend with the big bosses. While not extremely complicated, you become wary of wasting items and without prior knowledge you don’t know what weapons will eventually become incredible and what might have been a waste of time in upgrading.

Linear, a word that I have been throwing around in this article is unfortunately, a strong word with regards to XIII. The world while being incredible massive and beautiful, is merely an illusion. The little map in the top right hand corner of your screen is in reality, an actual representation of how much room you have to manoeuvre, and that is none. Short walkways and corridors are what comprise the adventure aspect of XIII; something could have been brought in to liven things up and offer room for exploration, but sadly this is not the case here. There is one added bonus however, the story as a result aside from a couple strands of tediousness, moves ahead with full steam and is a dream to go through.

To conclude, yes XIII does have a few noticeable problems, it is not a 10/10 title like Final Fantasy X or XII, however, it is fully worthy of the Final Fantasy title and a great successor to the series that has done the whole franchise proud. With an incredible storyline, rich characters, beautiful graphic and audio design and a whole heap of action to keep you entertained. Is it the best RPG to date? No. Is it the best RPG out right now? Yes. Final Fantasy XIII has been made in such a way that it’s demographic has widened and I am very confident that if you have not played a Final Fantasy game before, you should have nothing to fear as this is an excellent game to start your RPG experience with.

Igor Kharin
CeX (UK) Contributor
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